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Do students like reading Jospeh Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? The short answer would probably be no. In fact, there are many teachers who do not like to read the classic novel. However, what students and teachers both like to do is discuss the ideas and characters in the text. That is when Conrad’s prose finally comes alive in the classroom.
Below are several ideas for group discussions of the book. Each uses different methods to spark student interest in the themes and characters contained in Conrad's difficult prose.
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The Character of Kurtz
The enigma of Kurtz often fascinates students. One method for getting students to devlve deeper into the character is to use the film Apocalypse Now. While showing the whole film is not feasible or appropriate, showing the small section of the movie that features Marlon Brando as the character of Kurtz will provide interesting discussion points. Before showing the film, it is often helpful to have the students discuss or write about how they imagine the figure of Kurtz. Who would they have play him if they were casting a film based on the movie? After the viewing, have the students discuss how the film resembles the book and what changes the filmmaker has made. Do they agree with Francis Ford Coppola's portrayal of Kurtz? Often this discussion will expand to include the Dennis Hopper character, which closely resembles the Russian “harlequin” figure from the novel.
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“Mistah Kurtz--he dead.”
The anticlimactic death of Kurtz, which is announced with the words "Mistah Kurtz--he dead" (86), is a good point of discussion for the students. One assignment is to have them write a short essay on why Conrad would choose to have his most complex character die in this almost mundane way. How does it affect the story? How does it influence their view of the character and the work as a whole? Another good assignment is to have the students read the T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men,” which uses the quote about Kurtz's death. Why does Eliot choose to reference Conrad's work? How does the poem relate to the novel? What themes do they have in common?
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Racism in the Novel
The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe famously criticized Heart of Darkness as being a racist text. Have the students read all or part of Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” In the essay, Achebe states quite bluntly that “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist” and also poses the question of “whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art.” After the students read the essay, have them write for about 10 minutes on whether or not they agree with Achebe’s views. Then, have a class discussion where they share their writings. Another activity would be to hold a debate with one side defending Achebe’s thoughts and the other arguing against them.
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The Frame Narrative
One of the most interesting and puzzling parts of the novel is the way it unfolds. It is a frame narrative, a story within a story. Have the students discuss what is achieved by the author when this sort of structure is used. Why would an author choose it? What are its advantages? What are its disadvantages? As a reader, once the story begins do you forget the frame structure? Have does this type of story influence a reader's view of the narrator, especially in the case of Heart of Darkness where we learn very little about this character (you may need to remind students that Marlowe is not the true narrator of the story)? Have they read any other books that also feature this type of narrative? Often, if Heart of Darkness is taught during a British literature course, works such as The Canterbury Tales, Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein have been read, and these also have a frame narrative structure. In addition, have the students think about movies they have seen that feature a story within a story and discuss those. Some examples that most students will know include Slumdog Millionaire and Forrest Gump.
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Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988. 251-61.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York: Bedford Books, 1989. 3-94.